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Personal and Subject Matter Jurisdiction Compared: The First of Two Rings


Personal and Subject Matter Jurisdiction Compared

The First Two Rings


Much of the civil procedure course is devoted to the fundamental issue of choosing the proper court in which to bring a lawsuit. As we have already seen, there is quite a choice: Each of the 50 states has its own court system, not to mention the District of Columbia and other territories. In addition, there is a separate system of federal courts, established and administered by the federal government but geographically located throughout the United States. Thus, in any particular state there will be both the local state courts and one or more “branches” or districts of the federal court system.[1]

The plaintiff is not free to choose indiscriminately among the various federal and state courts in the 50 states. There are three basic requirements that limit the proper courts for any lawsuit. First is the need to find a court that can exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant. Second, not all courts can hear all types of cases: The plaintiff must choose a court that has “subject matter jurisdiction” over the kind of case she wishes to litigate. Third, the chosen forum must be a proper “venue” under the applicable venue statute. I call these the three rings of civil procedure and visualize them as in Figure 6-1.[2] As a rule, courts can only hear those cases that satisfy all three rings (the shaded area in the diagram). Frequently, a case will satisfy one or two of these prerequisites but fail the third. For example, the plaintiff may have chosen a court that has personal jurisdiction over the defendant and is a proper venue under the relevant venue statute (see the dotted area in the diagram), but the court will still have to dismiss the action if the third ring, subject matter jurisdiction, is not met.

This chapter compares the first two rings, personal and subject matter jurisdiction. The reasons for these two limitations on the right to bring an action are quite different, yet the concepts used to define them are sometimes confusingly similar. It is worth getting the distinctions clear in your mind before wading too deeply into the procedural morass.

[1]. Actually, there are numerous other court systems in the United States — many Native American tribes maintain their own tribal courts as well. For the sake of simplicity we leave those for another day and another course.
[2]. I am indebted to the late Professor Abram Chayes, of Harvard Law School, my own civil procedure teacher, for this helpful diagram.

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